Outward and Visible Signs

I have an idea I’m backing into writing about this morning as I stand on the subway platform, a thing that I’m thinking about as “A Theory of the Information Class,” which attempts to unpack the bizarre merger of Weber and Veblen that so many of us seem to live under today. We operate under a not-exactly-Protestant work ethic that selectively defers the benefits of that work to some mythical after-life. We spend on certain kinds of material display, certainly — technology not least among them — but more than that, we conspicuously display our stress levels as if they were an outward and visible sign of grace.1 The markers of our stress seem to have become the real fruits of our labor, the proof of our virtue, the evidence of our success.

I came to this notion this morning as I tried to imagine what my life would be like if I weren’t so overwhelmed that I can’t fall asleep, if I weren’t waking up at 4 am thinking about everything I have to do, if I weren’t too busy to go to the gym, or go to yoga, or cook healthier meals, or see my friends. The first thing that occurred to me — and trust me, I recognize how sad this is — was that I’d be afraid that I wasn’t working hard enough. Or rather, if I’m going to be honest, I’d be afraid that other people would think I wasn’t working hard enough.

Stress has become, I think, the contemporary sign of our salvation. This doesn’t take us all that far from Weber, of course. But simply being too busy to relax isn’t enough; it’s the need to make visible to those around us how busy we are, to prove our worth by forever demonstrating how little time we have for leisure, that I think begins to carry us into Veblen terrain. It’s not simply about deferring pleasure; it’s about the pleasure we take in deferring pleasure, a pleasure that’s all about how the deferral looks to others.

I’m not sure how much more I want to dig into this right now, or whether I’m at all qualified to take this line of thought much further. But it’s clear from my last few months of posting here, as well as the reading and thinking I’ve been doing in my (precious little! really, very impressively infinitesimal!) leisure time, that I’ve got questions of balance, of self-care, of stillness very much on my mind. I am going to let those thoughts linger, and see where they might take me.

  1. It only occurs to me as an afterthought: this phrase of course comes from Catholicism’s description of the sacraments. Has stress become a sacrament, something we receive regularly as a form of grace? Is this emphasis on good work(s) evidence of the development of a more properly Catholic spirit of capitalism?


  1. I suspect many (or certainly some) of your fellow academics share this feeling — even if they are unable to articulate it as clearly (in part, due to lack of time!). Busyness has become a moral good, high productivity a badge of honor. So, high-achievers find themselves (ourselves!) trapped in pursuit of an elusive reward that (of its nature) will remain always just out of reach. We can never write enough, do enough, achieve enough. There’s always more that we can be doing. Except, of course, that we’re only human, and there are only so many hours in the day (week, month, year). And, as you say, being constantly too busy to enjoy the fruits of our labor “defers the benefits of that work to some mythical after-life.”

    I write this as I head into the home stretch of what has been the busiest term in my professional career. Tomorrow, I head off to a conference, where I’ll give my fifth talk of this semester. I am looking forward to seeing people, but the prospect of more days spent in planes and airports (during which I invariably try to catch up on work, another goal I will never reach) does not exactly fill me with delight. Once I get there, though, I think I will enjoy it. I usually do.

    For the last decade or so, conferences have become my vacations. They’re working vacations, but they do at least get me out of the office for a little while.

    All of which is to say: I sympathize. And I think you’re even busier than I am.

  2. As a friend of mine said once, “if we’re all so busy we can’t see one another, then who, exactly, are we all busy WITH?” But yes, I think busy has become a sign of virtue, which may, in turn, be why teachers & academics are regarded with such suspicion (at least, humanities faculty – science faculty have all those impressive labs where things bubble & whir). There are long weeks at a time where we don’t have to go into an office, and, you know, sometimes we don’t teach until late in the afternoon. So to the outward eye of office-going folk, we don’t LOOK busy and if we aren’t busy to the naked eye, then we’re not really working, not really worth our paychecks.

  3. Oh, I hear you. And as an academic married to a lawyer who lives in one of those hard-charging centers of importance (blerg), I’m surrounded by this need to demonstrate how busy I am. And this morning my inbox is full of emails asking if I got that email they sent to me two days ago, one day ago, last night!!! and I think, wow, I must be doing something wrong if I haven’t been obsessively working and answering these things.

    I resist this and grasp onto frameworks that give me an excuse for embracing some stillness (Shabbat, for me, is that blessing). But it’s hard to maintain and I’m never not convinced I’m not doing it the way I’m supposed to be. Isn’t working hard to not be displaying how hard I’m working counterproductive? And yet…

  4. I happened to read this in a block of time where I’m normally frantically getting things done! There are a million things I could/should be doing but I needed the down time. I’m glad I took it, and glad I saw this. I would love it if our culture could embrace less stress, less work, etc.

  5. I just spent what was probably too much time (given my busy-ness, ahem) trying (and failing) to find what I recall was an opinion-like piece in the NYT some time ago (2 months?) about the problem of wearing our busy-ness as a badge of honor.

    When I read it, I recall thinking that e.g. Facebook is kind of the antithesis (but not the antidote) of this. At least among my FB friends, the cries of “I am busy, hear me roar!” are very few; the posts boasting of leisure, on the other hand, abound. (And those that are probably fairly neutral still make me think of leisure, since they’re taking time to post on FB.) I catch myself looking at the nth post relating to someone’s leisure activities and thinking, “Don’t you people work?” Of course they do. And probably too hard, which is probably why posting about leisure on FB is such a release.

  6. Kathleen,

    Your posting and invocation of Weber and Veblen (and the keyword “care”) make me think of the late Foucault, in particular his examination of how “the ancient Greeks emphasized the proper use (chresis) of pleasures” — I have had the resource of time to find and lift this little bit on Foucault thanks to the labour of others (who assembled the entry at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/) where I also read this enticing bit: “Foucault called an ‘aesthetics of the self’: the self’s creation of a beautiful and enjoyable existence.”

    BTW loving your recent piece about digital textuality and authorship on/at Culture Machine (and even before completing my reading I had to sent you this little note of appreciation).

    All the best


  7. Like yawns and smiles, stress is highly contagious. Who deserves to seem stressed out, when simply dealing with a stressed out person is stress in itself.
    I don’t believe stress would be a sacrament so much as a form of penance, like self-flagellation or recitation of the rosary. We already lack significant leisure, and we often work on the suggested (required) days of rest. Could you could effectively argue that we as a society have replaced, or combined our religious duties with our work week to minimize that which is demanding? Maybe that would explain how “hard-worker” became analogous with “good Christian” in the American political lexicon.

    We are not our profession and the acquisition of a more desirable position is not the same as self-improvement. Yet, just as every Catholic bears their mythical cross; every hard-worker chews their literal antacids.


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